Howards End | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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Howards End | Chapters 5–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 5

The Schlegel family, their German cousin, Frieda Mosebach, and Frieda's suitor, Herr Liesecke, attend a concert. Helen is engrossed in the music, imagining vibrant scenes to accompany Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and leaves the performance early, overcome with emotion. She mistakenly takes the umbrella of a young man who has been talking with Margaret about the performance. Margaret apologizes and asks for his address so they may return it. He declines, suspecting they are trying to trick him in order to rob him. When she offers him her card, with her address on it, so he can retrieve his umbrella, he seems relieved and in turn offers to take a forgotten purse to Frieda when she and her boyfriend leave the concert early. Margaret walks home with the young man, Mrs. Munt, and Tibby, speaking of music and culture, a conversation in which the young man wishes he could fully participate. As a member of the working class, he lacks the free time or education which allows the Schlegels to devote time to the arts. At Wickham Place, Helen jokes about stealing umbrellas and notes the worn state of the young man's. The young man leaves without staying to tea. Margaret regrets that their home is "irrevocably feminine," and that Tibby is not "a real boy" whose masculinity could have made the young man feel more welcome.

Chapter 6

The narrator states that the book is not about the "very poor" but about the "gentlefolk, or those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk." The young man from the previous chapter, Leonard Bast, is of the latter camp. He does not like to think himself inferior to people like the Schlegel sisters. He sees them as having their hands "upon the ropes" of art and culture. He aspires to gain all that they have in the way of class and culture, although the narrator claims it is impossible because people like Mr. Bast are "inferior to most rich people." Democracy has made people like Mr. Bast, who would have been quite content with their status and income before its existence, feel "obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts." Despite struggling financially, Mr. Bast continues to try to educate himself, attending classical concerts and reading about art.

He returns to his basement apartment after leave the Schlegel home. He reads some John Ruskin, a 19th-century art critic who writes about Venice, marking his place with Margaret's card, before his fiancée Jacky, who "[is] not respectable," returns. The implication is that Jacky was once a prostitute. She asks Leonard repeatedly if he loves her, and he says he has promised to marry her when he turns 21, which will be in November. He makes them dinner before she goes to bed. When she calls to him, he ignores her and tries to finish the chapter in the book he is reading.

Analysis

Chapters 5 and 6 introduce readers to Leonard Bast, a poor clerk with a great desire to improve his station in life. His introduction establishes an important theme in the novel: the contrast between the rich and the poor. People like the Schlegels are well-off enough that they have a comfortable life and don't have to work. Their time is their own. Leonard Bast, on the other hand, is surviving, but scarcely thriving, as he lives in "genteel poverty," a life defined by working and just getting by financially, as he struggles to improve himself.

Mr. Bast is a man pulled between his reality and what he longs to achieve. He is ambitious, and he envies the Schlegels for their ease of knowledge about the arts. Although quite dissatisfied with his current standard of living and education, Bast is trapped by his relationship with and sense of duty to Jacky, whom he has promised to marry. He seems to be both the primary breadwinner as well as the housekeeper and cook in their relationship. She is dependent upon him not only financially but emotionally, needing constant reassurance of his devotion. Even in his grim basement apartment after he has cooked a meager dinner, Mr. Bast tries to focus on improving himself by reading Ruskin. He has also protected her (and himself) by being somewhat dishonest about their relationship, neglecting to tell his brother about Jacky because he would "stop" the relationship, and pretending to their neighbors that they are already married, likely to avoid looking socially improper because they unmarried and are living together.

The narrator seems to assert in Chapter 5 that arts and culture are a privilege of the upper class. The "young man," revealed as Leonard Bast in Chapter 6, wishes that he could talk of music and art as Margaret does. But the narrator reflects on the fact that working people like Bast, who have only a couple of hours a day to devote to such notions, have no hope of catching up to people like Margaret who has the leisure to pursue culture and has "been reading steadily from childhood."

In Chapter 6 the narrator takes this reasoning a step further, arguing that the poor are coarse, inferior, and incapable of achieving the same level of cultural appreciation of art as the rich because the class system has stacked the deck against them: "[Mr. Bast's] mind and body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food." This contrasts with cultured people of leisure, who "had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are." A lack of money irrevocably stunts the poor's ability to develop as more well-off people can. The reason for this inequality is democracy itself, with its insistence that "all men are equal." This leads people like Mr. Bast to wish, and often pretend, to be more cultured, capable, and prosperous than they really are or will ever be allowed to be.

In Chapter 5 the author contrasts the masculine and feminine in the Schlegel and Wilcox homes. In the wake of Leonard Bast's fleeing with his umbrella after encountering Helen, Margaret laments that their home is a feminine one. She says they must avoid the danger of being effeminate, while more masculine homes, like that of the Wilcox family, must avoid the danger of being "brutal." Margaret wishes Tibby was more typically masculine in order to make male visitors feel more at home. There is some speculation that Tibby, with his more stereotypically feminine interests in music and culture, is a portrait of Forster himself, who some believe to have been homosexual. It is interesting that Margaret identifies the danger of the masculine with physical and emotional violence, which she encapsulates as "brutal," while the danger of the feminine home is simply to be effeminate and therefore essentially too feminine.

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